If you were a business and your product was secrets, you probably wouldn’t be falling over yourself to talk to the press. You’d be even less likely to want to talk to a journalist who has a reputation for exposing humbug and 1.79 million Twitter followers, if you yourself have developed a reputation for questionable business practices.
So, in some respects it came as no surprise when, in the opening minutes of Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie which was shown on BBC last night, he informed us that the Church of Scientology had declined to cooperate with him in the making of the film. He would not be allowed to film within the Church and they would not give him interviews. They wanted nothing to do with him. This isn’t the most auspicious start for a documentary film. But then one imagines that documentary film-makers are used to this sort of thing. After all, if everyone just told you whatever you wanted to know, you’d barely need journalists to provide exposés. Getting around obstruction is the journalist’s stock in trade.
Louis was not to be outsmarted so easily. If you can’t get into the Church, what you can do instead is entice it to come to you and gain some sort of access that way. In Theroux’s case, although he didn’t admit to it, what this consisted of was to get the number 1 critic of the Church on board and stage re-enactments of some of the most notorious Scientology events. To create the re-enactments, you advertise for actors. By doing this all under the nose of the Scientology headquarters, you’d be bound to attract their attention and so it proved. At one point in the film, with the Church seemingly well-informed of what Theroux’s team was getting up to, he gleefully inquired “Do you think we have a mole?” It was a bit like a carp angler wondering whether there was a fish on the hook when his float has disappeared beneath the surface of the lake.
Just to make doubly sure, Theroux and his team drove past Scientology’s desert establishment repeatedly and stopped their car or cars in view of the video cameras with which the perimeter fence is festooned. This elicited the desired response. Scientology goons appeared for some “squirrel-busting”, in their jargon, which involves obtrusively filming anyone who they perceive to be a threat whilst a second goon berates the inquisitive person and tells them to go home or desist their interest in the Church. You can see umpteen examples of this bullying tactic in YouTube videos. If you are a lone or essentially powerless individual, it must be very unnerving, but in Theroux’s case it was just hilariously funny. Although the Scientology camera was a large, chunky-looking, professional affair, they were never going to be able to out-film the BBC. The BBC team just outgunned them, as it contained a cameraman, a bloke with a big microphone on a boom and a director, in addition to Theroux and his informant Marty Rathbun.
On one occasion the unfortunate and rather good-looking girl who showed up with a camera-toting colleague at Theroux’s makeshift studio was reduced to squatting on the pavement and smoking a nervous cigarette while Louis and his team attempted to get her to divulge some information. It made great TV.
Marty Rathbun was the erstwhile Scientology Inspector General or enforcer who has since turned grass, if not “supergrass”, as one of his former colleagues alleged that he still wasn’t telling all he knew. This is probably because he spent decades as Scientology’s chief bully, second only to the apparently psychotic supremo David Miscavige and must have done an awful lot of bullying in his time. He came across as an unpleasant individual and his relationship with Theroux was extremely frosty at times, with him calling Theroux a “fucking asshole” when the latter tried to point out that the “squirrel-busters” were perhaps employing techniques that he, Rathbun, had pioneered.
The basic business model of Scientology – and it should be viewed as a business, rather than anything else – is that Scientologists attend a complex set of courses, each costing considerable sums of money, on a ladder to enlightenment and power. What you don’t want, in these circumstances, is for people to let the cat out of the bag before the student has stumped up the cash. Unfortunately for the Church, in this internet age where information is freely available to anyone who wants to look for it, the Church’s more ridiculous esoteric beliefs – that we are all descended from aliens seeded in volcanoes, for instance – have been widely publicised. It would now be hard to want to part with thousands of $$ to be told that.
Scientology’s teachings seem to rely on confrontational methods where students learn to dominate and bully other people by shouting at them, berating and belittling them. As you might imagine, Marty Rathbun was well-versed in this. But Louis Theroux is the perfect investigator for such a task as he appears protected by a cloak of what appears to be almost autism. As many of his films show, he is comfortable in very uncomfortable situations, or at least more comfortable than the people he finds himself with. I hugely enjoyed one scene with him facing Rathbun, both of them staring intently at each other while a silence hung in the air like a stalling jumbo jet. Who would speak first to diffuse it, the ex-professional bully who had spent a career teaching these techniques, or the mild-mannered Englishman to whom they appeared to come naturally? It was Rathbun who blinked first.
I can’t say that I learned anything much in Louis Theroux’s film that I didn’t know already, but that was probably because I once spent a day reading everything I could find on the cult and looking at many videos including Alex Gibney’s film Going Clear which is reckoned to be the definitive work at this time. Scientology is a cult that inspires revulsion and perhaps fear, but Theroux has succeeded in giving it a comedy value that has been maybe ignored up to now. But then isn’t that what he manages to do with most of his subjects of enquiry?